National Healthcare Decisions Day draws attention to estate planning


By Margot B. Birke

April 16, 2011 was the fourth annual National Healthcare Decisions Day. Sponsored by the American Bar Association, the National Healthcare Decisions Day (NHDD) Initiative “is a collaborative effort of national, state and community organizations committed to ensuring that all adults with decision-making capacity in the United States have the information and opportunity to communicate and document their healthcare decisions.” The website for this initiative can be found at

Advance directives are written instructions, recognized under state law, that relate to providing health care to you when you are incapacitated and unable to express your wishes to health care providers. Most advance directives have instructions for end of life situations and are called either living wills or medical directives.

An advance directive is only as good as your family and your agent’s willingness to honor it.

Advance planning is a process of reflection and communication — a directive should serve as a catalyst for thinking, discussing and clarifying values and wishes and must be a true refection of the your wishes and not a generic, one size fits all directive.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about Health Care Proxies:

What authority does a health care proxy give to another?

When you execute a health care proxy you (the principal) give another (your agent) the authority to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to communicate your wishes.

Why should I have a health care proxy?

If you become incapacitated it is important to have someone with the legal authority to communicate your wishes to medical personnel. This is particularly true if you and your family disagree about your treatment. Having a health care proxy in place will help ensure that your wishes are carried out.

Who should be my agent?

It should be a family member or friend who you trust to carry out your wishes. You should make sure to discuss your wishes with the person you choose so that both of you are comfortable regarding the decisions that will be made, particularly life sustaining measures.

What is a medical directive or living will?

A medical directive gives your agent direction and includes specific instructions regarding either beginning or ending life sustaining treatment. It can also be a broadly worded statement giving general authority for all medical decisions.

When does it take effect?

It only takes effect when you need medical treatment and you are unable to communicate your wishes regarding this treatment.

What happens when I can again communicate my wishes?

At that time the health care proxy will no longer be in effect.

Who should have a copy?

You and your agent should have an original and your physician should have a copy to be kept with your medical records.

Attorney Margot G. Birke is the founder and President of Elder Law Solutions located in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  She may be reached at 978-465-5407 or by e-mail at or view more information online at Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at